Oracle v. Google: Are APIs Copyrightable?



For the past few weeks, Google and Oracle have been in court to determine whether or not Google’s Android operating system infringed Oracle’s Java copyrights and patents. Today, the jury rendered a partial verdict favoring Oracle.

Because Google developed a new version of JAVA by reading the published API from Oracle, does that constitute copyright infringement? No, I don’t think so.

First let’s ask: “What is an API?”  Wikipedia defines it as “a specification intended to be used as an interface by software components to communicate with each other.”  That’s not quite accurate though. An API is designed to be used by humans who are writing code that is designed to commentate with other code written by other human beings.  Having an API allows one programmer to work independently of another.  It also allows for one code module to be substituted for another, as long as the API is the same.

Google made use of that fact when they developed Android.  They used a so called ‘clean room approach’ to make sure that the developers only used the API, and did not have reference to the underlying code that implemented the API. In other words, they used the API just the way it was intended to be used. This isn’t the first time that a ‘clean room’ approach has been used in the computer industry.  The API to the IBM PC BIOS was ‘clean room designed’ by Columbia Data Products in June 1982.  That’s what gave us the PC industry.

I still think Google technically won this round; even if there is ‘unfair’ use, it’s not going to be very expensive.

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